Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tessa's Time To Shine

By Daniel Quagliozzi


New cats enter the shelter everyday and everyone of them has a story to tell. Every now and again, a unique case like Tessa captures the interest of the Cat Behavior Team, both as a challenge and as a margin to judge success.

In March of 2003, Tessa arrived at our shelter as a four year old, former feral (say that three times fast), with very high anxiety and increased levels of fear. She was a difficult cat to place as she stayed hidden most of the time and would hiss and growl at volunteers if they approached without caution. In time, Tessa found a match! She would soon be living with the person that she thought would take care of her for the rest of her life.

Fast forward six years to the day Tessa originally arrived here. A very distraught client calls the shelter asking for assistance. Without warning, her life plans have changed and she will have to move to Hawaii. Unfortunately for Tessa, she will not be accompanying her guardian to enjoy the sun and fun as she was unable to make arrangements in time for her to go. Instead, Tessa will be coming back to the SF/SPCA for re-homing. There is just one catch. Tessa refuses to go into a cat carrier without a fight.


In extreme cases like this, The Cat Behavior Team will make house calls. We want to make this hard transition as smooth and stress-free as we can. Poor Tessa will need all the breaks she can get. So, with our heavy gloves, cat carriers and bravery, we headed to the studio apartment that Tessa had been living in for six years. She could hear us coming and immediately hid under the bed and inside the mattress, despite the wall of pillows constructed by her former guardian to hinder an escape. We lifted the mattress and carefully extracted Tessa from inside of the box spring. She went in the carrier with little effort and after a tearful goodbye from the person who cared for her... off we went to make her comfortable back at the SF/SPCA.


Tessa was not a happy camper. Despite our efforts to give her multiple hiding places, a quiet and sunny room with no other cats or noises to scare her, she still hid most of the time and would hiss and growl at anyone who entered her kennel. Remarkably, she would start to tone it down after a while, making personal connections with soft spoken volunteers and staff who would spend quiet time , singing her songs and reading in her presence. The success rate of working with shy cats has to be measured in baby steps.

Then, it got more complicated. Tessa would find comfort with those who spent the quality time with her but not with the animal attendants who came by for short visits to drop off food, empty a litterbox or check on her welfare. She graduated from hissing and growling to swatting and attacking.

There are common stimuli that can drastically cause anxiety in a cats behavior:

  • Arrival of a stranger

  • Intrusion into their personal space

  • Sudden movements

  • Loud noises

  • Novel objects

  • Novel smells

  • Loss of control over the environment

  • The arrival of other cats

This was definitely the case with Tessa. Her harsh reaction to virtually all of these stimuli (except for other cats)made the case very clear. Tessa was indeed having a very hard time adjusting to the drastic changes in her life's routine. So what do you do in cases like this?

Initially, we tried to desensitise her to the strangers, having them spend more and more time with her , especially during feedings. With her hesistance to people coming and going becoming an issue, the visitors who stayed longest seemed to be her favorite. Tessa showed us her discomfort by rolling around on the floor, showing her belly and purring like a motor. Progress!!!!
The next step was to move Tessa into an environment with consistancy. We wanted to immerse her in a room where people would stay longer than just few minutes to half an hour and be able to work with her socialization on a continuous basis, making every meal count. The next obvious place to live would be our office!


We moved Tessa in last week and so far things are really looking up! She walks freely around the room and has adjusted really well to the comforts of our office. Like a true diva kitty, Tessa has us wrapped around her fingers, catering to her every whim. It's a welcome distraction to our daily tasks and so worth the reward. Tessa is well on her way to being the shy but loving house cat that she once was.

If you are interested in keeping up with Tessa's progress or would like to take her home to live with you, feel free to email The Cat Behavior Program at catbehavior@sfspca.org

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